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He plays guitar downtown for money. What he really wants is a shower and a home

It’s a tough life but this job keeps homeless man going

Jon Akeman plays music in front of Ross Dress for Less in San Luis Obispo hoping to a little cash on a recent afternoon. Akeman, who is homeless, struggles with mental health and the lack of resources for him as a senior citizen.
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Jon Akeman plays music in front of Ross Dress for Less in San Luis Obispo hoping to a little cash on a recent afternoon. Akeman, who is homeless, struggles with mental health and the lack of resources for him as a senior citizen.

If you’ve recently strolled through downtown San Luis Obispo in the afternoon or Pismo Beach in the evening, you’ve probably seen or heard Jon Akeman. He’s the guy with long white hair, a patriotic bandana, guitar strapped over his shoulder and harmonica braced around his neck.

Known to locals as Dr. Jon the Citizen, Akeman, 73, serenades pedestrians with classic songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young or the Eagles.

“I get a thrill of people going by, smiling at me when I play. Plus, I get a little money on the side,” he said, sitting on a bench in front of Ross Dress for Less on Higuera Street on a recent Thursday afternoon. “That’s my job, to make people happy.”

Akeman is one of more than a thousand people who live on the street, in a riverbed or a patch of dirt under a tree somewhere in San Luis Obispo County, a place with limited resources to help in a state with a growing housing shortage.

Social programs — supported by nonprofits, government agencies, churches and private citizens — continue to piece together services, but there’s a gap between what is available and what is needed, particularly for seniors like Akeman.

Busking brings in between $5 and $15 dollars a day, on top of the $1,100 social security check he gets every month. That’s not enough.

He’s struggling to meet a short list of basic needs, on the top of which are a home and a shower.

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1960s, Akeman said, he was in the U.S. Marine Corp Reserves and he graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He said he was employed for most of his adult life and did stints in telemarketing and as an insurance agent. Before the turn of the century, he lost his longtime girl and his job.

It wasn’t until August 2012 that Akeman became homeless. That’s when he was kicked out of an apartment in Pismo Beach because too many people lived there, he said.

“I’m looking for a shower right now. I haven’t showered in seven days. And I want a place to live. There’s no affordable housing,” Akeman said.

In the past month or so, since Akeman was released from a skilled nursing center, he’s been finding his way to the Prado Day Center in San Luis Obispo to eat, socialize and shower. That’s where he used to go before he was hospitalized two years ago for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and then shuffled between skilled nursing facilities in Santa Maria and Oxnard until his release.

Visiting the day center was part of Akeman’s daily routine until recently, when he was turned away. He says he was told it’s because he is a fall risk and because he soiled himself — both of which he adamantly denies.

Grace McIntosh, deputy director of Community Action Partnership — which runs the Prado Day Center — said she could not confirm that he is a client.

“We require people are able to transfer themselves safely to the toilet, to a chair or to a bed without potentially hurting themselves because it’s not safe for them to be here,” she said, and it’s not safe for others.

There are people that ideally need long-term care, McIntosh said, but the current health care system is so restrictive that people who need it, especially low-income people or people on Medi-Cal, don’t have access.

“We call it the silver tsunami,” McIntosh said. “The number of medical beds, other long-term facilities, is woefully inadequate to meet our need.”

Akeman does get some help. For example, he meets with county Veterans Services and goes to the emergency room every few days to get a fresh bandage on an injured hand.

He called the situation he is in a tragedy and an injustice. He’s washing himself in the street in front of a tent.

Although he’s been sober for a year, Akeman said, “You cannot blame a homeless person for taking a drug or taking a drink because his reality is so harsh compared to other people’s reality.

“He’s rejected, people look down on him, he looks down on himself. Depression, no money, no place to go, and (it’s) frustrating as hell that there’s no housing in this town,” he said.

His advice? “Don’t become homeless. The reality you face in homelessness is so stark that most people can’t handle it.”

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Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan
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